By: Kathleen Pickering

Last Thursday, Jordan Dane’s blog discussed how we stumble upon, or in the more focused minds like the scientists of NOVA, discover plots that ultimately form our stories. I’m here to answer Jordan’s ending question on motivating, strange events.

Jordan, I’m discovering the strangest things that make me think of a book plot come from my own family–my sisters and my mother. (My two brothers are currently exempt.) I’m convinced the women in my family have been sabotaging my thirty year marriage and hence, giving me fodder to plot murder mysteries.

For example, today, my bathroom sink drain wouldn’t open. So, I climbed under the cabinet to fix it and found a pair of perfumed women’s Spanx stuffed in the back. Now, mind you, Spanx are not a lacy, black thong, but a highly constructed, beige spandex body slimmer, thigh length. Not at all sexy. See what I mean?


I laugh and post the photo on Facebook because it’s too freaking funny. Between the constant flow of house guests and the occasional pet-sitter, I know there is an answer other than the obvious insinuation that my husband has been having voluptuous women over when I’m traveling. Because after all, I would have to plot a murder mystery based on his unexplained demise, should it be the truth.

A phone call from one of my five sisters solved the mystery: “Oh, Kath. Ha. Ha. That’s mine. I was wearing it at your party in January and it got too uncomfortable. Ha. Ha. I’ll bet you gave Jimmy a rash over that one! By the way, can you take the photo off Facebook?!”

Or the time, when I picked up Jim’s suit from the cleaners, only to have the man who didn’t speak English very well hand me a folded wax paper bag with a woman’s bra . . . lace . . . beige . . . not mine . . . that the cleaner had found in the breast pocket of his jacket! I had been on my way to pick Jim up for a trip to eastern Long Island at the time. Needless to say, this “find” made for some colorful conversation on our two hour trip.

What did we discover upon arrival at my mother’s? “Oh. Ha. Ha. Isn’t that funny,” says Mother. “When you were here last week, I was picking up after everyone went swimming. Saw the bra on the floor, thought it might be yours and stuffed it in Jim’s suit pocket.”

Ha. Ha. It was my other sister’s. Or the other time, my younger sister borrowed my clothes and Jim pinched her rear-end because from the back, he thought she was me? Or the time my other sister took off her shirt in front of Jim thinking she still was wearing a bikini top? Here is a pastel of the women in my family, minus the artist—the one Jim pinched:

Mary alice pastel

The stories go on and on. So, I ask you? What kind of family would sabotage their unsuspecting brother/son-in-law with a wife in possession of an over-active imagination unless they were trying to trigger her homicidal story ideas? There’s more, but I’ve already over run my 300 word count.

The strangest things come from my family, Jordan. I will be writing an autobiography very soon.

I Like Complex, Competent Villains

By John Gilstrap

There comes a point in most stories where the villain and the hero face off and have a Dramatic Moment with each other. As many times as not, I find that beat of the story to be the nadir of the dramatic arc. In that moment resides definitive evidence of the writer’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read some version of this: “Well, Detective Huffnagle, since I’m going to kill you anyway, there’s no reason for me not to explain all of the things that the author who created me couldn’t figure out a way to clarify more elegantly. . .”

I spent fifteen years of my life as a firefighter and EMT, cleaning up after the handiwork of killers. Figure a couple, three murders a year, and they add up over time. Never once did I process a witness report of a dramatic speech preceding the fatal blow, shot or stab wound. Real bad guys pretty much just step out of the shadows and do what they’re out to do in as lop-sided a manner as they can. They point the gun, pull the trigger, and the rest plays out at 9,000 feet per second.

In my own writing, I find that the most vexing challenge can be to find the motivation for my bad guy not to pop the good guy on sight and get it over with. Motivating him to take the shot is easy; explaining his last-minute collapse in marksmanship skill is tough. Remember that scene in Behind Enemy Lines when Lt. Burnett is sitting on the rock taking a break? Our enemy sniper has for freaking ever to zero in on his shot . . . and then he misses! WTF?! How am I supposed to respect a bad guy who’s so ridiculously incompetent?

Not to run counter to the opinions of my colleagues here on The Kill Zone, but in the creepy worlds created by Thomas Harris (one of the two greatest thriller writers of all time, in my opinion), Hannibal Lecter is a lightweight compared to Francis Dolarhyde (Red Dragon) or Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs). Those guys are ninth-degree nut jobs who don’t even realize that they’re being evil. Man, that’s scary.

The other best thriller writer of all time on my list is Frederick Forsythe, whose book, The Day of the Jackal, is The Perfect Thriller. In it, the whole villain thing becomes a bit murky–just the way I like it. On the one hand we’ve got an assassin out to murder the French president, while on the other we have state security forces who torture citizens to death in their zeal to prevent the murder from occurring. I defy you to point with one finger at the bad guy in that story.

As I write this, I think I’m deciding that maybe bad guys are over-rated, and serial killers are overdone. In the wrong hands, it becomes too easy to create a character who’s bad simply because he’s crazy. There’s no moral complexity. All else being equal, I’ll take a Dennis Lehane character any day over a serial killer: a morally-centered cop, for example, who shoots a child molester simply because he has the opportunity.

Maybe morality matters less when it feels so good.